As we emerge from Covid restrictions, many of us are struggling to get back into shape and lose unwanted kilos. For some, that means lacing up their shoes and heading out for a jog. Yet for every runner, plenty of others are literally "exercised" about running – that is, vexed, anxious, or tired of hearing that we are born to run, that running is the best kind of exercise and the secret to health and happiness. Apart from being uncomfortable, isn’t running ruinous for knees? Doesn’t it sometimes kill people? Isn’t running an ineffective or useless way to lose weight?

My late father-in-law was one of those runophobes. Whenever he drove past a runner, he would grumble: "There goes another one, running himself into an early grave." In truth, running helps people to stay healthy and live longer, but I can see why he was irritated by runophiles, a class who nag and brag about running, which they mistake for a virtue. You know the type: people who tell insufferable yarns about their race experiences, describe their injuries in excruciating detail and showboat about how many miles or marathons they have run. Fortunately, most runners are simply passionate about running, but countless bystanders are bewildered, wary or completely averse.

Why is something so normal and natural the cause of so much confusion? I think the root of the problem is that the modern world has transformed how we use and think about our bodies, even in terms of ordinary pursuits like running. The truth is we really did evolve to run

Well, sometimes. Humans evolved mostly to walk, but our ancestors occasionally ran long distances at a moderate pace to get dinner; they also ran when they played, and every once in a while they sprinted to avoid being someone else’s dinner.

Running is our most fundamental form of vigorous physical activity, made possible by dozens of amazing corporeal adaptations – from our heads to our toes – that enable ordinary humans to be superlative distance runners compared with most animals.

Now, however, machines have made most kinds of physical activity unnecessary. Running, like other forms of exercise, has become a discretionary, commodified and medicalised behaviour that few adults either do or understand. And that’s a pity.

So, if you are contemplating running but feeling exercised about it, let’s debunk a few common myths to help you be less of a runophobe and perhaps even a runophile.

1. Running is bad for your knees

People mistakenly think too much running will wear out the cartilage in their knees – causing osteoarthritis – just like too much driving wears out a car’s shock absorbers. In fact, gold-standard studies show that runners are no more likely to develop knee osteoarthritis than non-runners, and that running actually helps to protect your joints. The knees are indeed the most common location of running injuries, but they can often be avoided by training properly, and not overstriding, which means not landing with your foot in front of your knee.

2. Running is the best kind of exercise

How can there be any best kind of exercise when each of us has a different body, abilities and health concerns? Study after study shows that any amount of physical activity is better than none at all, and that we benefit from a mix of aerobic and strength activities, especially as we age. The key is to move. So if you don’t like to run and want some vigorous exercise, do something even more enjoyable: get up and dance!

3. Runners can eat what they want

This is a dangerous myth. Running confers many health benefits, but you can’t run away from a bad diet. Runners who consume lots of processed food like pizza, chips and fizzy drinks are also vulnerable to heart disease, metabolic syndromes and other lifestyle-induced ailments such as type 2 diabetes. Even if you are not gaining weight, these foods slowly damage your body. The problem is that the effects of unhealthy diets take years to show up, and by then it’s too late.

4. Running is useless for weight loss

Some experts discount running and other kinds of exercise as useless for weight loss. The explanation is that exercise doesn’t burn much energy and just makes people hungry and tired, so they compensate by eating and resting. The reality is not so simple. While people can lose more weight faster by dieting, studies show that moderate levels of exercise (300 minutes or more a week) can lead to gradual weight loss. Even more importantly, exercise helps to prevent weight gain and regain. Given these and other benefits, running, like other physical activities, should be part of most weight-loss programmes.

5. You should run in supportive shoes, or barefoot

Everyone is confused by the many options and opinions out there about shoes, including the supposed risks and benefits of not wearing shoes. Relax! Yes, we did evolve to run barefoot and it can be fun, but shoes are comfortable and they protect your feet. In my opinion, what matters most is not what’s on your feet but how you run. However, what’s on your feet can affect this. So if your shoes aren’t working properly, consider switching slowly and gradually to something different. And learn to run properly: don’t lean too much, take about 170-180 steps a minute, land gently with your ankle below your knee with a relatively flat foot, and relax.

6. You can either be a tortoise or a hare

If elite sprinters like Usain Bolt could maintain their 100-metre pace for a marathon, they’d finish in slightly over an hour; in contrast, elite marathoners cover 26.2 miles in about two hours. But contrary to widespread opinion, that trade-off between speed and endurance does not apply to the rest of us. In general, people who can run faster can also run farther. And if you want to improve your speed or endurance, it helps to do some occasional speedwork, also known as high intensity interval training (HIIT). If you add HIIT to your exercise routine, however, be careful not to overdo it.

7. Too much running can kill you

Ever heard that old chestnut about the Greek messenger Pheidippides who died after running the first marathon after the Battle of Marathon? In reality, the oldest account of the story, by Herodotus, never mentions the messenger dying. That fiction was added 300 years later by the satirist Lucian, and then romanticised in 1879 by the poet Robert Browning. Further, careful studies find that the risk of a heart attack during long-distance races such as marathons, despite widespread media attention, is so small that the far greater risk is not exercising enough. That said, if you are worried about risk, see a doctor before starting a running programme.

8. Just do it

Some runophobes think that running is so normal that people naturally leap out of bed and run long distances just for fun without any special effort. Don’t fall for this because, although running is salubrious, it’s also challenging and costs energy. People generally run only when it is necessary or rewarding. Tarahumara runners in Mexico (who are deservedly famous for running long distances) struggle like the rest of us to run, but persist because they deeply value running, in part as a form of prayer. So if you find it hard to motivate yourself, you are normal and just like most runners. I find the best way to make running both necessary and fun is to run with friends.

Daniel E Lieberman is professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University and author of Exercised: The Science of Physical Activity, Rest and Health

The Daily Telegraph

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